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Chartres Cathedral

Locales > France

Why Go  To Chartres

The idea of seeing one of the medieval masterpiece buildings – often regarded as being the finest in France – if not in the world appealed. After all when the all time great historian Kenneth Clarke called it one of the two greatest covered spaces in the world – the other was Hagia Sofia – it had to be amazing. I heard that it was full of highly significant religious art embedding age old sacred narratives together with a range of relics.
Before I went I spent a considerable amount of time researching the Cathedral. So I knew that it contained some very special stained glass, had 3 fantastic portico entrances and held a special relic, the Sancta Camissa or the tunic which, reputedly Mary was wearing when she gave birth to Jesus. I knew there was a labyrinth in the floor of the church which matched in size one of the rose windows. The construction was cutting edge 12th and 13th Century and there were geometric patterns everywhere with significance. There had been riots at the cost of building the cathedral. Pilgrims had come from many lands to pray at the shrines and many miracles were reported.
So the cathedral was a place where many of the finest medieval craftsmen had worked for their entire working lives. It contains statues and monuments that took the finest artists decades to complete. Each statue, each stained glass window, each tableau is world class created with an epic story to convey and created with a passion.
Getting There
Getting to the cathedral requires a significant effort – the nearest airport Paris CDG is several hours away and there is no direct connection. Trains from the UK or driving is no quicker. It is not cheap to get to either – the return trip cost over £200 each with the budget airline Flybe.
The Internet made it sound simple showing that there was a connection from Paris CDG airport to Chartres. The fact that there were multiple connections to be made was not clear. Eventually it turned out that the simplest route was to take a coach from the airport into central Paris to arrive at Gare Montparnass and then from there take a train to Chartres. Getting out of the airport was a nightmare and took over an hour from touchdown, to collecting our baggage and exiting the airport on to the coach – it even involved catching an internal train to pick up the suitcase. We must have walked a mile or so.
The plane landed at 14:00 local time and so it was that we caught the 15:10 bus to Montparnass. It crawled through the Parisian traffic until eventually at 17:15 or so we made the station. Ticket machines in France are understandably meant for people who speak French – so we went an queued to see a person in the ticket office who eventually sold us the tickets.
We knew that the trains took different times to get to Chartres but we couldn’t figure which one to catch – so eventually we chose the nearest and plonked ourselves down on the train. It arrived at Chartres having stopped at every station on the track and we got off.
We had no idea where our hotel was – so we got into a taxi which charged us $7 for the 30seccond journey to the hotel. The Internet had suggested this was the best hotel in Chartres and it was kind of amazing – with painted cherubs above our bed.
Cathedral History
The story of the cathedral is epic. Charles the Bald, the son of Charlemagne gave the cathedral a relic – The Sancta Camissa in the 800’s. This was Mary’s tunic which she wore whilst giving birth to Jesus – or so it was believed. Miracles of healing followed with the devout making pilgrimages to be near it.  
There was a major fire in 1194 which destroyed the cathedral and it was thought the tunic. 3 days after the fire, the legend goes, 3 priests emerged from the ashes, having been hiding in the crypt bearing the tunic, just as a papal legate was addressing the crowd.
This was interpreted by many including the local bishop Regnault as being a sign from Mary that she was dissatisfied with the old cathedral and wanted a better and finer church to her glory. The bishop’s ambition was huge – he planned a massive building and when there was no stone available a new quarry was found locally. When the roof could not be constructed they invented a crane powered by men walking inside a giant wooden wheel – that is a treadwheel . The wheel was mounted some 36 metres in the air. The death of workers was common because if the rhythm was not kept up the wheel would spin backwards as the load slid back down towards the earth and the workers would be spun outwards.
There were riots against the expenditure on the building which actually resulted in fines being levied by the king that eventually allowed the construction to continue.
Although the work carried on for hundreds of years the building was virtually complete in 30 years. A bridge between heaven and earth to house one of the most venerated relics- the holy tunic  – a fitting  shrine to Mary.
Late History
The French revolution brought about a secular state and many of the relics of the churches were destroyed.
The tunic was housed in a jewel encrusted casket which was melted down but part of the tunic was saved. However the Casket of Teudon another jewel encrusted casket was lost. The head and slipper of St Anne, the tapestries of Queen Bertha, the golden girdle of Anne of Brittany, the flagon of Thomas A Becket’s blood and many other holy relics were also sold or destroyed.
The cult of the relic lived on though, with a medal being struck in 1832 to commemorate the deliverance from cholera by the holy tunic.
In 1905 the state took control of all church buildings but allowed clergy to still use them. The cathedral is now maintained by the state and renovated by it. So it is the state who are currently cleaning and painting the interior – with a beige paint wash. They are cleaning many of the statues and renovating the stained glass.

The Cathedral
The cathedral is of a classic cruciform design
The cathedral stands on a hill and it is clear that the intended approach is to the western porch entrance. So on the next morning, after we arrived, we went directly towards that portico.

Western Portal – The Royal Portal

The porch or portico or portal is striking for the ornate statues that cover every inch of the arches. This porch is dedicated to the story of the 2nd coming of Jesus. The striking aspect is the human scale of the figures and their faces. You are looking at statues of people that were carved 800 hundred years ago to show the approach of the 2nd coming.
There are over 200 figures arranged on and around the 3 doorways in layers. The central figure is Christ in majesty at the 2nd coming surrounded by figures. There is little point in describing in detail the scene when the video below is far more descriptive.

I found the experience impressive – the scale seemed human, and the carving spoke to me of craftsmen over 800 years ago working to the limits of the knowledge that they had. The figures were carved by people who had no doubt whatsoever – this was the entrance to God’s church, in praise of God and this provided the route to physical salvation at the 2nd coming. These people were from a time where change didn’t happen. Life may have been nasty, brutal and short but it came with certainties of the social structure and certainties of God. After all God was the answer to everything and his church spoke for Him on earth.

The statues were the more impressive since they were amongst the 1st figurative carvings since the statues of the Roman Empire – the art was just being rediscovered. This gives the statues that adorn the columns a power that is lost once technical perfection and massive scale could be achieved. They looked to my eyes modern.

Northern Portal

The northern portal is based on the old testament. It prophesises and predicts the coming of Christ.
Southern Portal

The southern portal is about the glorification of Jesus. His apostles stand on either side of him and on his right are martyrs - on his left confessors.

The Nave

Once I entered the Cathedral having been moved by the Royal Portal the central nave should have spoken to me. The guide books say I should have been awed by the soaring vaults, the majestic columns and the light from the stained glass windows. However, I regret that although I saw, and could intellectually accept the magnificence - the reality felt a lot more prosaic. The video below is uncut and not edited for sound - so to a certain extent you can judge for yourself. There is no reverence going on here - just bored tourists.

The nave originally was painted but then a fake stone work was painted over it - with stone lines being picked out in red against the painted beige. It now seems bizarre to construct stone work and then paint it to make it look more realistic. The French ministry of works has now painted the whole lot a uniform grey beige.

High Altar Statue

The high altar has a monumental work by a French sculptor , Charles-Antoine Bridan completed in 1772. Today it seems that is generally admired for the quality of the craftsmanship but no one actually likes it. It depicts Mary’s assumption into heaven in a totally over the top way. It really dominates the space.

The Screen

Surrounding the choir stalls at the end of the Cathedral is a monumental statue frieze on an epic scale.
There are 40 niches intended to tell the life of Jesus and Mary episodically. The sculpture is exquisite and the detail huge - it was completed over 200 hundred years as funding and commissions allowed. They are gradually being cleaned.
The one scene that drew my attention is the circumcision of the Christ child. To be honest it looks really weird – white marble figures looking on in wonder as a priest cuts the Christ child’s penis. Understandably the church doesn’t seem to want to draw attention to this – aware of the prurient interest it may cause.
Overall the impression is of huge effort, creating massive detail which says nothing to a modern audience. Did it create awe in the 16th and 17th mind? I have my doubts.
Our Lady of the Pillar

The notes beside the statue say, ” This polychrome statue was sculpted in the 16th century and place upon a pillar from the 13th century rood- screen. In 1830 it was surrounded by a wood screen in the NeoGothic style. Mary’s crown was added during 1855 during the papacy of Pius IX. In troubled times children would come here, kneeling, torch in hand chanting a Salve Regina."

Hail, holy Queen, Mother of Mercy,
Our life, our sweetness and our hope.
To thee do we cry,
Poor banished children of Eve;
To thee do we send up our sighs,
Mourning and weeping in this valley of tears

Sancta Camisia

Mary's Tunic, or Sancta Camisia, is said to have been worn by the Virgin Mary during the birth of Christ or during his crucifixion.

It was found by the Constantine’s mother Saint Helena who wandered around the Holy Land with unlimited funds hoovering up relics. It was then given to Chartres by Charles the Bald in 879 Charles was nominally a Holy Roman Emperor, following on from Charlemagne. He struggled to impose his authority on his empire and the gift was no doubt a power play.

As I noted above, the tunic was thought to have been destroyed in a fire in 1194 but three days later it was ‘found’. The bishop claimed that this was a sign from Mary herself that another, more magnificent, cathedral should be built in its place. The whole incident just happened to coincide with the visit of a Cardinal from Rome.

The holy relic was crucial to the building of the cathedral both giving the Cathedral a reason to be built and through pilgrimage and fund raising the means. It was quite literally regarded as Mary’s presence on earth. Other objects touching the fabric would take on it’s holy power and then be used for healing or worship as a route to God. Many miracles were ascribed to Mary at Chartres and they are usually ascribed as being routed through the Tunic. When battles were won, sieges lifted, harvests saved and the sick cured then it was through the intervention of Mary and her tunic. When funds were needed Mary would provide and if times got really tough then the tunic went on tour.

The fact that Cathedral’s nave was built with a slope so that the dirt and rubbish created by the horde’s of pilgrims could be washed away is some indication of the degree of veneration generated.

It is disappointing therefore to see such a powerful object of devotion stuck away in a side chapel with little ceremony. The other relics that still exist, such as the Empress Irene’s cloak,  are no longer on display at all.
The guidebook to Chartres gets around to giving the tunic a few lines at the bottom of the last page, occupying the final margin.  

I don’t think most people would regard it as authentic but there can be few objects that have had such an impact on the devout and been the epicentre of such a widespread Marian cult. Both the object, and the story deserve a better presentation.

The Stained Glass

You may hear it said that the wonderful Chartres blue of the stained glass is impossible to recreate even today. That is nonsense. The cathedral's walls are dominated by the stained glass windows and of these the rose windows at each portal are the most impressive. The picture below is heavily edited to give the best impression of all 3 rose windows with their lancets below against a black background. Real life is not like this - you need to look at the windows from a distance to take them in, by which time the detail becomes very difficult to read. You will not be able to compare and contrast as this composite allows.

The northern rose (10.5 m diameter, made c.1235) is dedicated to the Virgin. Mary. It depicts the Virgin and Child surrounded by angels and prophets.
The western rose, (12 m in diameter made c.1215) and shows the Last Judgement. It shows Christ as the Judge surrounded angels, elders and  he dead emerging from their tombs as the angels blowing trumpets.
The southern rose (10.5 m diameter, made c.1225–30) is dedicated to Christ. He is shown surrounded by adoring angels. Two outer rings of twelve circles each contain the 24 Elders of the Apocalypse.

Below and beyond these windows are many, many others depicting biblical and apocryphal scenes, with a population of kings, queens, angels, prophets and elders. There are far too many to take in even if one could have a full appreciation of who is doing what to whom and in what story. A lot of the images are too high to be able to appreciate them in any case. However they are wonderful and since they were all cleaned immediately after the 2nd world war and subsequently they are in very good condition.

You are left with a feeling that you have just seen something quite marvellous but with the meaning, reason and context obscured from view. The audio guide descends into little more than a roll call of who is who in which window.

Chartres is an amazing building, perhaps the finest early gothic construction anywhere. It has a huge number of fascinating features and stories to tell. It seems to be doing it’s best to tune out the stories to become a secular monument, tuned up, cleaned and made tourist friendly.

There were a group of Amercians being lectured at before they went into the cathedral. The guide said, “You are just going to love it – make sure you see the stain glass windows and the arches. Now we’ve got an hour and half here – and of course you can get lunch in as well. There are a lot of cute French cafes here and some even serve hamburgers."

And that is the target audience – no longer the penitent, devout pilgrim but the coach travelling “see Europe in a week - next stop Versailles” crowd.

So sad.
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